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Howard Rosenberg TELEVISION

For HBO's Well-Made 'The Wire,' Crime Pays

May 31, 2002|Howard Rosenberg

HBO is an Energizer Bunny whose assembly line of first-rate series keeps going and going.

Joining "Six Feet Under," "Sex and the City," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "The Sopranos" on this pedestal is "The Wire," a scorching look at the drug trade in a Baltimore housing project through the eyes of mid-level dealers and police.

Locating flickers of goodness even in street criminals and flaws in heroes with badges, this dual perspective strips back layers of complex human behavior to affirm that few of us are entirely wicked or entirely virtuous. It's a point FX makes, too, with the crooked, homicidal cop protagonist and his comrades in its new series "The Shield." But with a sledgehammer.

"The Wire," on the other hand, has virtues galore. Its first five episodes rank with TV's elite crime-busting hours at their best, from NBC's late, great "Homicide: Life on the Street" and durable "Law & Order" to ABC's ongoing "NYPD Blue."

No cable slouch, either, is Showtime, whose smart, seductively charming comedy "The Chris Isaak Show" resumes in witty top form Tuesday night. Showtime is entering the crime sphere impressively, too, for arriving June 23 is its new weekly series "Street Time," a superbly executed account of parolees and the cops who keep close watch on them.

These pay-cable channels, which are supported by subscriptions instead of advertising, often have detractors in their largest broadcast competitors. The latter aging titans pout and whine on cue, for example, when HBO embarrasses them by annually earning Emmys and other big awards far out of proportion to its relatively slim audience base.

The sourest of these grapes--despite heading TV's overall Nielsen ratings--is NBC. This poor baby complains that narrower-casting HBO has an unfair advantage when drawing critical praise, because its production budgets usually top those of broadcast TV, its ratings criteria are less demanding, and looser cable standards invite raunchier sex, language and gestures.

All true. You know you're watching cable when a police major in "The Wire" flips off a detective with both hands, and the noisy, grinding sex in Episode 3 makes "NYPD Blue" look like C-SPAN.

But unfair? You play the cards you're dealt. HBO's most critical advantage is the same one Michelangelo had over house painters. In other words, those shaping the course of TV occupy different levels on the talent-and-vision food chain.

Based on its uneven pilot, for example, NBC's own coming new fall series about L.A. crime, "Boomtown," will operate several zones beneath the stratosphere of "Street Time" and "The Wire."

The latter is from David Simon, a former crime reporter and executive producer of "The Corner," HBO's brilliant, Emmy-lavished 2000 miniseries based on a nonfiction book that he wrote with ex-cop Edward Burns.

Just as "The Corner" defined a Baltimore neighborhood's seedy, destructive drug subculture in aching detail, crime and narcotics are also the architecture of the West Side's Franklin Terrace in "The Wire." It's where junkies shoot up and float off, where young gangsters deploy 8-year-olds as lookouts for invading squad cars, where rap and sirens are the music of a teeming underclass, where police and traffickers cross paths provocatively.

It's a tossup, at times, which side of the law is less admirable or more self-serving, as lines between good and evil blur in this turbulent drug arena. Simon creates almost parallel universes in which Baltimore police and drug dealers bloody themselves in bitter turf wars and operate by chains of command, including a police bureaucracy headed by a deputy commissioner less sensitive to public need than to public relations.

Written by Simon and directed by "Homicide" regular Clark Johnson, the premiere has a murder trial going bad when a key prosecution witness is intimidated by thugs working for a gang leader. This Franklin Terrace drug lord is then targeted by a hastily assembled unit of homicide and narcotics cops in an awkward union of police divisions no more compatible than the FBI and CIA. Although it is an understaffed and underequipped face-saving gesture designed for stagnancy, the investigation turns up surprises while uncoiling wiretaps and surveillances, and teaming a pair of high achievers who share a desire to throttle the drug trade.

One is narcotics Detective Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), a lesbian taking college classes with an eye toward a career change. The other is homicide Det. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), a divorced father with an angry ex-wife and a custody problem. Under everyone's skin, it's McNulty who gets that double bird from his major, initially appearing to be another of TV's many maverick cops whose greatest ambition is to irritate their superiors. Happily, he turns out to be much more interesting than that.

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